HALIBUT COVE — At 23, Don Darnell was smoking a lot of dope and having a lot of fun, but not making much money, when a friend told him to apply for a job surveying the route of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Darnell, the son of a machinist, had learned to survey as a teenager growing up in Kodiak, cutting brush and pulling a measuring chain. There was plenty of surveying work after the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake, which destroyed downtown Kodiak and offset property lines across the region.
In 1971, on a crew surveying across Alaska from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay, Darnell figured out how he wanted to live his life. And in those years he created something that affected my family and me. Although not in the way you might expect.
He's a master storyteller. I've listened many times over a cup of coffee, as I did recently here on the deck of his floating house in the cove Thursday, hearing about blazing the way for the pipeline.
"It was the best job I ever had. I was young and strong," Darnell said.
Crews leapfrogged their way across the open country by helicopter on an 800-mile route over land that generally showed no human mark. The helicopter pilots were recent Vietnam vets, as wild and tough as the young surveyors, hot-rodding their machines through the wilderness.
Much of Alaska had not been mapped. The pipeline was a line on an engineer's sketch. The surveyors sometimes used the original field notebooks of government explorers from 50 years before, stained with blood from long-dead mosquitoes, to find their location by stumps and blazes on trees.
Darnell recalled climbing mountains in the Brooks Range to find brass monuments. With three mountain tops located, and a crew on each holding a large marker, a surveyor on a helicopter would zero in a location using a prism — a place where the pipeline would turn. Then the chopper would drop a marker.
On a break from work, Darnell went home with $10,000 in his pocket.
"I never knew there was that much money in the world," he said. "They'd send you into town, you'd ruin your health, and you'd say, 'Please send me back to the Bush.'"
He struck up a relationship with a dancer at the Kit Kat Klub in Anchorage. On a remote surveying job, he recalled trying to call her on the company's Motorola two-way radio, ringing the club's phone through the marine operator. Their romantic conversation was shouted over the public airwaves with a juke box pounding in the background.
Darnell set a pattern in his life. After working on the pipeline, he went away to sea for 25 years, much of that time as an able-bodied seaman on blue-water ocean voyages across the globe. He liked seasonal work and relationships that rekindled during brief visits home, always a honeymoon.
He never married, but the daughters of a woman he was with for 13 years still call him their stepfather. They're now in their 30's; one has gone to sea herself.
Darnell found his home when a pipeline survey crewmate told him about land on Kachemak Bay, near Bear Cove. A woman had staked five acres under a state program. He bought her right to the land, sight unseen, for $500.
The parcel was on its own in a little cove 13 miles from the Homer Spit, a two-hour ride in Darnell's little diesel-power wooden dory.
On a rock promontory over the water, he dreamed up an eight-sided log cabin. Although he'd never built anything before, and didn't have power tools or even a tape measure, he plotted out the angles and lengths based on some windows he had salvaged from a demolished hospital in Fairbanks.
He came up with a cabin out of a fairy tale.
"When it got time to put the roof on, there was some head scratching. It wound up being an eight-sided roof, which in the end turned out to be quite a challenge," Darnell said.
He went into the woods and found tree branches that forked at the right spots to be his rafters and supports for four dormers.
"There were no plans. I would just hold a pole out there, support it with something, stand back and look at it, and cut some more poles," he said.
He lived five years in the cabin, fishing and having fun at campfires with other young people in the summer, and in the winter, making his heat from coal and wood and light from a glass kerosene lantern. He beat ice off the dory every day to keep it afloat.
Without communication, the solitude was total. Until one day, looking out at the amazing beauty of the place, he decided to move on.
"It just came to me like an epiphany," he said. "I packed everything I wanted to take with me in my dory and I left."
He built a house floating on a barge in Halibut Cove, where protection from the waves and a few dozen neighbors made life in winter much easier. He rarely visited the place in Bear Cove and eventually sold it.
I was there with my kids seven years ago — we bought the octagonal cabin in 2004 — when a strange boat pulled onto the beach. We'd heard of Darnell and had marveled at what he built. Suddenly, here he was.
We spent the day together looking around the place he hadn't visited in decades and shared a picnic on a nearby island. My son and daughter, then 10 and 8, had been growing up there, living on the beach through their summer breaks. They knew every corner of the islands and caves and shared their knowledge with Darnell, who was recovering memories from his long-ago youth.
On Thursday we met again. He fed us with smoked salmon and expounded on how much the kids had grown. They're teenagers now, only at the cabin for brief visits.
Darnell's voice choked when he told them how much that visit seven years ago had meant to him, when he saw a new generation loving the cabin he had loved so long ago.
He said, "I realized I did something good."
Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.
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